War Stories

Baker to Baghdad?

Bush finally admits that the occupation is going badly.

Click here for a July 29 update.

Two recent signs suggest not only that postwar Iraq is going badly but that top Bush officials, finally, know it’s going badly.

The first sign came last week in a little-noticed article in Stars and Stripes, reporting that the 3rd Infantry Division will no longer accommodate embedded reporters—or, with few exceptions, reporters period.

Embedding was a brilliant PR gesture, designed to weave a bond of intimacy and dependency between war reporters and war fighters, but it could remain brilliant only as long as there was a good story to tell. All through Operation Iraqi Freedom, there was a good story indeed, and the embeds beamed it far, wide, and enthusiastically. (Remember CNN’s Walter Rodgers, embedded with the 3rd I.D.’s 7th Cavalry, breathlessly telling viewers how “we” broke through the defenses and took the bridge?)

Now, however, the story has turned sour, to the point where two soldiers with the 3rd I.D., who had grown all too accustomed to talking freely with the press, publicly lambasted not just the brass but the political bosses—on network television, faces exposed, names on the record—in startlingly stark language. One of the soldiers told ABC News, “If Donald Rumsfeld was here, I’d ask him for his resignation.” The other said, “I’ve got my own ‘Most Wanted’ list. … The Aces in my deck are Paul Bremer, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, and Paul Wolfowitz.”

After that exhibition, the spokesman for the 3rd Infantry issued a statement that the unit was “no longer embedding media for short stays, effective the beginning of this week.” The unit’s commander, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, went further, deciding, as Stars and Stripes put it, “to stop letting reporters spend time with troops, except to gather information for pre-approved ‘news features.’ “

It is unclear whether this was Blount’s decision or the Pentagon’s. However, since embedding was a Rumsfeld initiative (specifically, conceived by his then-assistant secretary for public affairs, Victoria Clarke), its termination almost certainly could not have been ordered without the permission of Rumsfeld or his aides. And if someone so high up has decided that the image of the mission would now do better without embeds trailing along, that means they know the era of casually good stories is over.

The second, and more intriguing, sign was the news over the weekend that President Bush is asking James Baker, his father’s old secretary of State, to go to Baghdad and help supervise Iraqi reconstruction. It is not known whether Baker will take the job—at this point, it’s a little murky how definitively Bush made the offer—but, however it turns out, the story is quite stunning in at least two ways.

First, Baker is 73, living comfortably, and widely respected both as a diplomat and as a political operator (on the latter point, he could claim much credit for pulling Bush out of the Florida fires and thus helping install him in the White House). In other words, if Baker took this job—and Bush must have known this before thinking about offering it to him—it would not be as an underling to Paul Bremer, the current U.S. administrator, or even as someone who reports, as Bremer does, to Rumsfeld. He would take it only as (de facto, if not de jure) the man in charge.

Bremer, it might be recalled, was in Washington late last week, conferring with Bush, holding court with Rumsfeld before the Pentagon press corps, and chatting on the talk shows. At all these appearances (at least the ones in public), he kept up a smooth stream of optimism about progress in Iraq—at the same time that Bush was thinking of replacing or demoting him. This confluence does not bespeak great confidence.

The second interesting thing about Baker is that he is, and always has been, deeply opposed to the unilateralist views that currently dominate the Pentagon and the White House. Last August, Baker wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, urging the president not to “go it alone” in confronting Iraq and to “reject the advice of those who counsel doing so.” (Shortly after that piece—which was widely viewed as having been inspired, or at least approved, by Bush’s father—the president did indeed take his case to the United Nations.) Just last April, at a speech before Toronto’s corporate elite at the Empire Club of Canada, Baker talked of mending U.S. relations with the traditional allies and working more again with the United Nations.

The fact that Baker is being considered for the job might indicate that Bush finally realizes he can’t secure and rebuild Iraq on his own, that allies are necessary. And who better to get those allies onboard than Baker, who got them onboard before?

And so we might soon see a great battle on the Potomac, a rematch of last year’s grueling duel of Powell and the diplomats vs. Rumsfeld and the neo-cons. Only this time, with a Bush-backed Baker tipping the scales, the diplomats could win.

Update, July 29, 2003: Today, the Post is reporting that Baker will not be offered the job after all, and that the current bureaucratic arrangement—which has Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Baghdad, serving under and reporting to the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—will remain in place, unaltered.

It is not entirely clear what this intriguing sequence of leaks and counter-leaks has signified. But it looks as if the diplomatic wing of the Bush administration (those who believe, like Baker, that the United States must mend its ties to the allies) attempted an end-run around the unilateralist neocons who currently dominate policy-making—and got crushed in the process.

Examine the wording of the Post’s lead: Baker, it says, “will not join the Iraq reconstruction effort, as some administration officials had hoped.” (Italics added.)

Keeping in mind this guidepost—the signal that the entire story is about internecine conflict—it becomes clear how to fill in the blanks, or decode the euphemisms, of the following passage, from later in the piece: “[W]hen the idea of reaching out to Baker was made public [i.e., when it appeared in the Post], it quickly became clear that it would be seen as undermining Bremer [i.e., undermining Bremer’sboss, Rumsfeld] and any such notion was discarded [i.e., was beaten back severely].”

And so, let me revise my own lead from this article: Postwar Iraq is going badly, but it’s not yet clear that Bush knows it—or is doing anything about it.